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TV's Overwhelming Whiteness Changes How We Think

How do our brains respond when people of color are invisible or stereotyped on TV? Here's what the latest neuroscience research tells us.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/AlesHostnik


It simply isn’t true that there are no folks of color in the new HBO series “Girls,” in which young, attractive white women try to find their way in the post-9/11 Big Apple. For example, in the last minute of the very first episode, a homeless black guy talks to our quirky, spunky heroine, Hannah.  “Why don’t you smile?” he says to her. “Does your heart hurt? Oh, girl, when I look at you, I just want to say Hellloooo, New York!”

Hello, New York, indeed. This isn’t the first time TV pushed millions of immigrants and people of color to the margins of one of the most diverse cities in the world. Hello, Woody Allen! Hello, “Seinfeld”! Hello, “Friends” and “Sex and the City”! If “Girls” can’t make it there, it can’t make it anywhere. Of course, the rest of TV has been overwhelmingly white, too. Ever since “Father Knows Best” and “Wagon Train,” the medium has long presented a whitewashed version of the way we live.

That might be why some “Girls” writers take exception to their show being singled out for criticism. Here’s what writer Leslie Arfin  tweeted in response to criticisms: “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” (“Precious,” the 2009 film about a mentally and sexually abused teenager, featured a predominantly black cast.)

Why shouldn’t Arfin and creator Lena Durham be able to re-create their own private girl-world on screen? What responsibility do show runners have to represent diversity? Does it even matter? How do our brains respond when people of color are invisible or stereotyped on TV?

This is where science can help. I co-edited a book called “ Are We Born Racist?,” which features new insights from psychology and neuroscience about what happens in our nervous systems when we encounter people of different races. And we found that decades of studies say yes, the racial vision of “Girls” does matter. For example, a  series of four 2009 studies found that people who watched shows that featured negative nonverbal behavior toward blacks became more prejudiced themselves, as measured by tests of implicit bias — this was especially true when viewers didn’t recognize the behavior as negative. It seems that TV can indeed subconsciously induce racism.

So how can show runners correct for that? The research is overwhelmingly clear: job one is to confront the fact that racial difference exists. The  new science of racism reveals that our brains do indeed seem to react negatively to people of different races — exposure of just milliseconds to a black face can cause white folks’ amygdalae to light up with fear.

Colorblindness doesn’t work because we never stop spotting differences in our environment.  Our brains are designed to do that; that’s how we survived on the savannah 50,000 years ago, and it’s how we survive in the globalized urban jungles of the 21st century. It takes an effort of will to cover your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears and shout, “Nah nah nah I’m not listening,” when confronted with racial difference. And doing that is what psychologists call “non-survival behavior,” something that belongs in the same category as smoking cigarettes and riding a motorcycle without a helmet.

The antidote to subconscious bias is not political correctness — shoehorning in a quirky, spunky black BFF for the girls will just annoy black viewers, instead of making the world a better place. Rather, the best cure for what ails shows like “Girls” is a dose of thoughtfulness, self-awareness and courageous originality.

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